It was a long walk back to my car after Saturday’s afternoon practice, the first full team practice and the first of the Sam Bradford Era. Longer than usual, thanks to the rather popular idea that it might be fun to spend a beautiful afternoon getting a first hand look at the future of the franchise. One of the sun-reddened Rams employees working the grassy parking area told me there were close to 800 cars — most of them full of families, meaning at least 2,000 fans were in attendance. More than I ever saw at any of last year’s practices, that’s for certain.
Those who were following @RamsHerd on Twitter got a few dozen of my on-the-spot observations — only a few of which were complaining about how damn hot it was, I promise.
Here’s a selected few, and my thoughts in more detail.
1. Wide-open Wide Receiver Competition
The lack of obvious injuries to this group was some of the best news we could have hoped to see, and something that I hope continues throughout camp. Last year, Donnie Avery arrived in camp literally bouncing with confidence and energy, only to suffer a sprained toe that held him out of most organized activities and the preseason. Then WR Brooks Foster had a nightmare injury during the Rams’ Lindenwood scrimmage that ended his season.
This year, with so many young and talented players jousting for position among the team’s final five or six, we want skill to be the determining factor. We want this competition to raise each player’s game.
Raising their game? One guy stood out early, and it wasn’t who I expected. I was keeping an eye on Avery, on Laurent Robinson, on the battle between Amendola and Gilyard, and trying to watch for the two undrafted players generating buzz in minicamp, Dominic Curry and Brandon McRae.
But meanwhile, Keenan Burton looks bigger and more confident, and ran without a noticeable hitch. He seemed to run his routes, even in drills, purposefully. Like he was anticipating the contact that comes at the NFL level on nearly every play, and ready to deliver the same punishment in kind. Burton is a guy who doesn’t often get attention, even when talking about the potential for a third-year breakout player among the receiving corps. But he became the go-to-guy after Robinson went down, and made several tough grabs.
Burton punctuated his day by making a sight adjustment on a deep sideline route, as Sam Bradford threw the ball slightly inside the route. Burton, with Justin King draped all over him, found the ball in the air and swerved down to get it for what was likely a 30+ yard gainer. A phenomenal grab.
2. Amendola vs Gilyard
Danny is working hard out here. getting to top gear on every return, with some nice cuts. gilyard gunning for his job tho.
The undrafted practice squad player versus the collegiate record-setter. The semi-entrenched young veteran versus the hotshot rookie. Whether or not Danny Amendola and Mardy Gilyard are fighting for a single roster spot, they are definitely competing for primacy as return men and slot receivers.
And that competition is going to break down into an archetypal one very quickly — “the hard worker” versus “the natural talent.”
Danny Amendola ran hard on every drill and every play that I saw, and in kick return duties to close the 90-minute practice, made a point of reaching top gear on every return. He came back to the simulated goal line, a mere fifteen feet away from where fans stood at the fence, drenched in sweat and still locked in his zone awaiting his next turn.
Gilyard is smooth and light. He has what looks like multiple high gears, but rarely showed his true speed in kick return practice. What he did show, consistently, is an ability to change directions like a leaf in the wind. He is superior in making himself invisible behind his blockers before flying out again. And he does all this seemingly without breaking a sweat.
The comparison goes farther: Amendola comes off as a hardass, not interested in social niceties. Even his own teammates don’t expect him to get on Twitter any time soon. I made eye contact with him between returns, thinking I might root him on, but the words got stuck. I might as well have been offering encouragement to Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer. Gilyard, meanwhile, was staying loose, chatting up Jerome Murphy and Quincy Butler, two DBs sharing KR duties on the day. And Gilyard made a point of coming back around the fenceline after practice was over to deliver high fives and sign autographs — past the cordoned off areas for extra-special fans, to where us ordinary people were standing.
Of course, you have to take these comparisons with a grain of salt. Gilyard does sweat, does work hard. Amendola is blessed with an abundance of natural speed, more than most. And both are fierce competitors. But fans can’t help but seize on to the personalities these players display, and I can easily see fans dividing into two camps as the battle for playing time rages.
3. Bradford vs Feeley
Feeley takes the first snap with first team in drills close to the fans … in second snap, he’s intercepted by na’il diggs.
This wasn’t an aberration. In 11-on-11 scrimmages, Feeley sounds like a quarterback. He can bark out a play like nobody’s business. But after the snap, he consistently locked in on his primary receivers, forced passes that didn’t look open, and could not get the ball to the sideline with any zip. They floated, or were skied over the receiver’s head.
Bradford showed smoother mobility, a polished play-action fake, and even on a straight dropback you could see his helmet move quickly from route to route, seemingly intent on reading his progressions and finding the right outlet.
Consistently, after Feeley had had his reps, the coaches gave Bradford a few snaps with the first teamers before rotating the second wave of guys in. Clearly he’s the man. Not just of the future, but right now. And fans were excited to see it.
My buddy Rod, a season ticket holder from day one, doesn’t get on Twitter, didn’t see these updates come in first hand. (He grabbed my phone from me today to see what I write, and as he put it, “to see how much shit I’m full of.”) So I told him what I saw: that Bradford already looked like the best quarterback on the team. But it wasn’t just that he looked good, but that AJ Feeley looked pretty awful.
Groaned Rod: “Come on! It’s only one practice!”
True enough. But if Feeley continues to look like he did Saturday, and Bradford continues to look like he does, the rookie will be starting with the first team within a few weeks. At most.